2018 has not been an especially fun year to be a Wisconsin football fan.
After the preseason hype machine sent the season’s expectations into the stratosphere, losses at home to BYU and on the road against Michigan and Northwestern have dropped the Badgers from the polls.
If happiness is a ratio of expectations to reality, that precipitous fall means there are a lot of unhappy Badgers faithful out there.
Some have been quite prolific on social media and in comment sections. Most have directed their ire at head coach Paul Chryst and quarterback Alex Hornibrook. Unsurprising, of course, the HC and QB always get the BS when things are FUBAR.
A common refrain is that Wisconsin will never take “the leap” (implicitly defined as a College Football Playoff win) with Chryst at the helm. Chryst must be replaced, the logic (such as it is) goes with a mythical figure who will take Wisconsin to a national title.
This take is emphatically, comically wrong. Here’s why.
Paul Chryst is an objectively good coach with strong Wisconsin ties
Paul Chryst is an objectively good football coach. Here are some Paul Chryst facts about Paul Chryst: Paul Chryst’s record at Wisconsin: 39–10. Paul Chryst’s record in bowl games at Wisconsin: 3–0. Paul Chryst’s record in New Year’s Six Bowl games at Wisconsin: 2–0.
Wisconsin’s scoring offensive rankings under Paul Chryst as head coach: 28th (2017); 39th (2016); 28th (2015). As offensive coordinator, his offenses set school records for point scored in a season and scoring average.
A total of 10 Badgers were drafted in the 2016–18 drafts. In the 2006–12 drafts (the Chryst OC years), 18 offensive players were drafted. (Also, Chryst OC is a good band name.)
As importantly, he knows and understands Wisconsin. He’s a Wisconsin alumn and has built deep roots in the state. By all accounts, the high school coaches in Wisconsin trust him, which is important because …
Wisconsin succeeds due to programmatic infrastructure
Barry Alvarez cracked the code. Use Midwestern talent to fill the lines, look to the coasts for skill positions, fill in the cracks and misses with a robust walk-on program teeming with under-looked, in-state talent dying to prove themselves.
This is the formula for sustained success in Wisconsin. Is it the formula for sustained success in Missouri or Georgia or Utah or California? Probably not, because inherent programmatic advantages vary from program to program, state to state. But it works in Wisconsin.
Most current college systems, particularly offenses, require an infrastructure that runs counter to Wisconsin’s inherent advantages.
We have a recent example of what happens to Wisconsin football when programmatic infrastructure erodes in the Gary Andersen era. Except for the conversion to the 3-4 on defense, Andersen’s approach to talent (smaller linemen, spread offense, de-emphasizing the walk-on program) had the program slipping hard before his departure to Oregon State.
Who is better situated to lead Wisconsin?
Seriously? If not Chryst, then whom? Name me coaches who would be more successful AT Wisconsin. Not “who’s a better coach” or “who’s a better recruiter?” Who is going to understand (and succeed with) the specific peculiarities of the University of Wisconsin?
The in-state, high-end talent pool is not especially deep. Not all players want to play in the cold. Not all players can make it academically (see, also, the Gary Andersen era) whether through admission standards or in the day-to-day grind. Not all players want to go to Madison, Wis., when they can go to Los Angeles or Miami or a bunch of SEC towns.
There’s also a personality component somewhat unique to Wisconsin football. The fan base kind of hates the arrogant, front-running, ego-maniac coach. Bret Bielema’s act was tolerated, begrudgingly, because he won. Can you imagine how Chip Kelly’s (or Rich Rod’s or Jim Harbaugh’s) ego would play with the Wisconsin fan base?
Winning cures all, I suppose, but all of those coaches have had less recent success than Paul Chryst has at Wisconsin, with less programmatic and infrastructure constraints. Frankly, so have just about all coaches whose name aren’t Saban, Swinney, or Meyer.
A program’s soul matters
This is the hill I die on as a fan.
Look, I get it. Only the truly naive believe that big-time college sports—at all schools—are not compromised. If one is going to root for a competitive Power Five program, it is just something that must be made peace with.
That said, the sheer tonnage of scandal that follows many “big-time” coaches is breathtaking. Hugh Freeze, Art Briles, Urban Meyer (hell, JoPa). The list goes on and on and on and on.
I suppose talking about a program’s soul when everyone’s compromised is hypocritical, but I want to root for a program that takes academics more seriously than its peers and maintains strong ties to the state. I want to root for a program that carries a serious reputation for talent development and running things as cleanly as it can.
By the way …
When did the fan base get so spoiled?
Years of Rose Bowls, New Year’s bowl games, B10 Championships and tremendous success!! All of the sudden Badger Nation has turned into a bunch of whiners..sometimes the cards don’t come your way, but support the program and the seniors who have sacrificed so much for Wisconsin!! https://t.co/1KovHCs2UO
— Arthur Goldberg (@arthur_goldberg) October 27, 2018
After a truly unprecedented run of success (I would argue the best in program history save for the back-to-back Rose Bowl wins), watching the “faithful” turn eight games into an OK but not great season is disconcerting.
For a fan base that has ratcheted up the criticism of late, there seems to be a shocking lack of reciprocity. Note this common occurrence:
Be careful what you wish for
Those still unconvinced need only look at the Nebraska’s and Miami’s of the world to see what happens when great is not good enough. The list of schools that went into the wilderness after firing or forcing out a coach is long: the aforementioned Huskers and ‘Canes, Michigan, Tennessee, Texas, just to name a few.
Many of those programs thought they were just a coach away from the “mountaintop” too. They were wrong and it cost their programs dearly. Some have never bounced back.
Don’t believe me? Ask a Vols fan how they are feeling these days.